The best moment of One Direction’s new 3-D tour documentary, This Is Us, happens early in the film: Simon Cowell, who formed the massively popular boy band on his X Factor competition in 2010, looks straight into the camera and declares, “These girls are crazy about One Direction, and I have no idea why.”
But wait! Instead of rolling another montage of screaming teens pushing past barriers and forming mobs at arenas, the camera cuts to a laboratory where a scientist breaks down the boy-band sensation with a biology lesson. Armed with illustrations of the brain, he explains that hearing music you like releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the mind’s pleasure centers (a process also responsible for runners’ high and certain addictions). “The girls are not crazy,” the scientist says. “The girls are excited.”
When people talk about One Direction’s enthusiastic and mostly female following, the Directioners, “crazy” come up often. This Is Us rolls clips of morning news hosts marveling at the mania surrounding the band, throwing out phrases like “One Direction fever” or “One Direction hysteria” as if a spike in hormones or an illness is solely to blame for the band’s multi-platinum success—something that happens to young girls, instead of something they choose. Between tour footage and candid interviews, This Is Us showcases the boys’ behind-the-scenes lives, but it more convincingly comes to the defense of their female fans by legitimizing and respecting their interest.
The film couldn’t have done so at a better time. Earlier this month, British broadcaster Channel 4 aired its own documentary called Crazy About One Direction that did pretty much the opposite. Its characterization of Directioners as borderline stalkers (one featured teen spoke of visiting the bands’ childhood homes and infiltrating their hotel) drew ire from fans who both felt misrepresented and believed the filmmakers exploited their interview subjects, like one girl who admitted she got braces to look more like a band member. (Oddly, some fans also spread rumors that 42 Directioners had committed suicide in response to the film’s portrayal, though investigations by Channel 4 found no record of such deaths).
The British GQ came under similar fire this summer when it chose Niall, Zayn, Liam, Harry, and Louis as their September-issue cover stars. In the story, GQ called Directioners and other boy-band fans “rabid, knicker-wetting banshee[s] who will tear off [their] own ears in hysterical fervour when presented with the objects of her fascinations”—girls who “don’t care about history” and were “almost literally” turning themselves “inside out” in response to the “hormone bomb” of the boys’ arena show. Many chastised the article for its sexist language, while a vocal few responded with violent Twitter threats concerning the sexualization of the young men themselves (the cover line for 19-year-old Harry Styles, the floppy-haired Taylor Swift ex, reads “He’s up all night to get lucky”). GQ rounded up the tweets, citing the reactions as further proof of Directioner hysteria.
It’s okay to wonder why One Direction is such a phenomenon. After all, not many talent-competition acts—let alone ones that finished third—achieve enough success to transcend their reality show identity. It’s the rare performer who, like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, embodies the right combination of radio-friendly hits (written by themselves or others) and personal charisma (however misunderstood by non-fans) to speak teens’ language internationally. And while Amanda Hess in Tomorrow makes a great case for why gay One Direction fan fiction is a healthy outlet for teen girl sexuality, it’s definitely perplexing to see fans trying to get Louis Tomlinson’s girlfriend kicked out of university because they believe Louis is in a secret relationship with Harry. “These guys have gotten so huge in such a short amount of time—why?” asked This Is Us director Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame. “What makes them more special than any other people?”